From Scotland to Catalonia, from Crimea to Kurdistan: We need global rules on how self determination is exercised
Most countries in the world claim to have derived through some form of national self determination. However, the reality looks very different. The overwhelming majority of nation states and their boundaries emerged as a result of wars, conquests and colonization between the 17th and 20th century. This is why the call for self determination in large parts of Europe and the Middle East cannot simply be ignored by the UN and the EU.
A history of war, occupation & suppressed self determination
Regions like Scotland, Catalonia, Crimea, Kurdistan, South Tyrol and the Szeklerland, to mention just a few, were all conquered by force in the last few centuries and then incorporated into the increasingly centralist political structures of their invader states against the will of the local majority population.
As our world globalize and societies become increasingly egalitarian, democratic and focused on personal self determination, collective self determination is emerging as another important aspect of modern human aspiration. The rise of separatist movements across the globe, most particularly in Europe and the Middle East, hast to be understood in this context. We will see more rather than less of it in the future.
Self Determination versus Territorial Integrity
Although self determination is recognized as a basic human right in international law, it is rarely exercised. In fact, there are two international laws that seemingly contradict themselves- the right to self determination and a nation state’s right to territorial integrity.
Whenever a region wants to break up from a nation state, different powers tend to cherry pick which of the two they prioritize depending on their strategic needs. When the Kosovo declared her independence, the US and the majority of EU countries supported the break up of the region from Serbia while Russia was against it. In the case of Crimea, Donezk and Luhansk it was the opposite.
Most nation states emphasize the indivisibility of their territory. They draw on the theory that any break-away-attempt by regions and communes represent a breach of the principle of territorial integrity. This is is also the current approach by Spain.
However, territorial integrity is only supposed to protect the boundaries of an independent state from outside agression. It is certainly not meant to prevent the local or regional population within a state from exercising self determination themselves. It contradicts the modern concept of grass root democracy and subsidiarity that political decisions should always be made as close as possible to the people affected on the regional or even local level.
We need global rules on how self determination is exercised
Any attempt by nation states to prevent their regions and communes from exercising self determination is therefore unquestionably a clear breach of international and European laws, among them the Treaty of Lisbon and the UN Charta on Human Rights. For that reason it is the responsibility of the UN, the EU an the European member states to act.
While on a global basis self determination could only be exercised within a connected and self contained area, the EU could go a step further and enable each commune to vote on its regional and national status. As the Schengen area has no controlled boundaries, enclaves would not matter and democratic self determination could be exercised on the most local level possible.
In the case of Catalonia, for example, this would be a very useful measure as there are enormous regional differences in the level of support for separation from Spain. Why should a commune in which 90% of the population wants to remain in the Spanish state be forced to separate if Catalonia as a whole supports separation and vice versa? The situation in other potential break away regions in Europe is similar.
A great chance for more democracy and cooperation in a more United Europe
The EU has the unique opportunity to create measures that allow for self determination to be exercised in its purest form. Those nationalist forces in Europe that argue the EU has no legitimacy to get involved in separatist conflicts are wrong.
Those who fear the EU or the European unification process would weaken as a result of local and regional self determination and the possible appearance of more states on the continent are also wrong.
Smaller entities that are closer to the people will make Europe more democratic, resolve ongoing minority problems, but also increase the need for more cooperation. In fact, they should help create the “United Europe of Regions” that the founders of the European project envisioned after the horrors of two World Wars. Maintaining the inflexible nationalist status quo will do the opposite.